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Who Are the Hebrews?

Who Are the Hebrews?


The first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham,1 and the name commonly refers to his descendants, known as the Jewish people. The word for Hebrew used in the Bible is עברי (pronounced "Ivri"), meaning "of or pertaining to עבר-ever." So what does "ever" mean?

The Midrash2 quotes three opinions as to where this name comes from:

  1. Rabbi Yehuda taught that the word "ever" means "opposite side." Abraham believed in one G‑d, and the rest of the world worshipped man-made gods. Thus, "Abraham stood on one side, and the entire world stood on the other side."
  2. Rabbi Nechemiah opined that it is a reference to Ever, great-great-grandson of Noah (usually Anglicized as "Eber"), ancestor of Abraham. Eber was one of the bearers of the monotheistic tradition which he had learned from his ancestors Shem and Noah and passed on to his grandson Abraham. Since Abraham was a descendant and disciple of his, he is called an Ivri.
  3. The rabbis held that the word is a reference to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the river and was not a native Canaanite. "Ivri" also refers to the fact that Abraham spoke the Hebrew language—thus named because of its ancient origins, preceding the development of the other languages current at that time.3

So Hebrew means the one who is opposed, on the other side, and different from all others. Abraham was a solitary believer in a sea of idolatry.

Perhaps this is why the second person to be called a Hebrew is Joseph.4 A nice Hebrew boy ends up in Egypt, the decadent land of the Pharaohs, where people and the celestial spheres are worshipped instead of G‑d; a lone teenager with outlandish Hebrew beliefs from the far side, in the strongest society of his day. Joseph did not cave in to the pressures. He stood firm in the faith of his ancestors and ultimately rose to the top of Egyptian society, until he was second to Pharaoh himself. In fact, it was after the wife of Potiphar had tried to tempt him into sinning, and he withstood the temptations, that he is first referred to as an Ivri—for then he showed that he was a faithful bearer of the contrary tradition of Adam, Noah, Shem, Eber, and Abraham.

So who are the Hebrews today?

The Jewish people, who after over 3,000 years still cling to their peculiar beliefs and are not swayed by the passing fancies of pop culture, are the same contrary people as their ancestors—the Hebrews of old.

Bereishit Rabbah 42:8,
While the other languages developed after the dispersion which followed the building of the Tower of Babel, Hebrew preceded them all. Perhaps it is etymologically related to the word עבר-past, since it is a language from the past.
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for
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Discussion (44)
January 21, 2016
Why not just call yourselves Hebrew rather than Jews since in the Hebrew language their is no letter "J" anyway. i assume that the hebrew People of old never referred to themselves as Yews.
October 6, 2015
what do they mean by 'Hebrews to man'
September 20, 2015
When did the name Hebrew become Jewish?
San Diego
August 3, 2015
Human Believes
No society can be without religious beliefs. And just as every individual believes that he/she is better than the other, every society believes so.
Kiplimo Kemboi
July 12, 2015
Thank you for this interesting story, much more meaningful than going through my flash cards or app, the word will stick with me. I was only learning the word Ivri last week.

I was also intrigued and wondered why G-d seems to require his people to cross a body of water and go over "to the other side" in order to follow His command.
July 10, 2015
The biblical word Ivri (Hebrew: עברי), meaning to traverse or pass over, is usually rendered as Hebrew in English, from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and Latin Hebraeus. In the plural it is Ivrim, or Ibrim. The hieroglyphic rendering of the Egyptian word š3sw (Shasu) means "those who move on foot".

I'm curious to understand how did you arrive at that conclusion? In Genesis 10:21 Shem, the elder brother of Ham and Japheth, first-born son of Noah, is referred to as the father of the sons of Eber (עבר), which may have a similar meaning. A Hebrew means "one who crosses the plains of Sumer". Hebrew is an act, not an nationality and not a language. it was first coined when the people of Sumer saw Abraham who was born a Chaldean, who spoke Chaldea, crossed the plains of Sumer after he came into contact with God. See the book of genesis when Abraham meets Melchisidec. So Abraham became a Hebrew because of the act of "crossing". The Hebrew language is really Chaldean.
July 10, 2015
To Craig Hamilton
Eber (Ever) was called just that. Abraham was the first to be called an Ivri, or Hebrew, which means "of Ever."
Menachem Posner
July 10, 2015
How could Abraham be called the first Hebrew when Eber [Hebrew] was the name for Abraham's Great, Great, Great Grandfather? It seems that the only way this could be true was that the Eber [Hebrew] that lived 6 generations before Abraham [the first Hebrew] was never called by his name.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
July 8, 2015
Abraham Hebrew?
I thought Abraham was Chaldean? Spoke Chaldea?
July 8, 2015
The origin of the word Hebrew
I thought that the name "Hebrew" was given to those who traveled across the desert in Mesopotamia. That it was actually a verb instead of a noun.